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Issues

There are ongoing debates and discussions by those interested in oral history about the importance and the significance of personal and political disclosure by interviewers, in both the interview process and in published work that uses oral histories. I certainly believe that my social location–as a white, gay-identified, middle-class, Jewish, Ivy League graduate student and graduate–influenced my easier access to white middle-class gay male narrators who became active in the gay community in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So did my age and generation; I was born in 1963, which meant that my youngest narrators were approximately a decade older than I was while my oldest ones were nearly forty years older. All of these factors influenced the content of the interviews as well, as did the fact that I was born and bred in New York, went to college in Connecticut, and lived for four years after graduating from college in Boston, which meant that I was a relative newcomer to Philadelphia when these interviews were conducted (having moved there in 1989). But the nature of that "influence" is not always as straightforward as it might seem. For instance, while I often felt quicker rapport with my Jewish and my activist narrators, I also often developed quicker rapport with my lesbian, as opposed to my gay, narrators, which replicated patterns in my social life.

One of the most difficult issues I faced in the interview process was how to handle disclosure about my gay identity and my sexual history. During this period of my life, I identified strongly as gay. I began to have sex with men in the early 1980s, came out as gay in the mid-1980s, worked as the coordinating editor of Boston's Gay Community News in the late 1980s, and intended to focus my research on gay and lesbian history when I began graduate school in 1989. All of that said, I also had a long history of having sexual relationships with women as well, and my primary (though open) relationship from 1991 to 1994 (when many of my interviews were conducted) was with a woman (who identified as "not straight"). I was quite conflicted about whether to disclose my heterosexual relationship and history to my narrators and consulted widely with oral history experts and academic colleagues, whose advice varied considerably. On the one hand, the interviews were not (primarily) about me and some of the people I asked for advice argued that my identity and my history were irrelevant. On the other hand, I thought it was likely that most of my oral history narrators would assume that I was gay, either because they had encountered me in contexts where most people were gay or because the common assumption in the 1990s (and to some extent still today) was that straight people were not interested or would not pursue research projects in gay and lesbian history. I was concerned that some of those who assumed that I was gay (which I regarded as a correct assumption) and assumed that I only had sex with men (which was not correct) might not want to talk with me, or might talk with me differently, if they knew about my past sexual history and my current primary sexual relationship. In the end, I decided that before the taped component of the interview began, I would make it my practice to make clear that my narrators could ask me anything they wished about my personal or professional life if they wanted to do so before the taped part of the interview began. I typically repeated this offer more than once and I committed myself to revealing my heterosexual history if there was a question that even remotely related to this subject. Only rarely did my narrators ask me anything after I offered to answer their questions and even more rarely (fewer than five times) did they ask a question that led me to reveal my history of sexual relationships with women. No one withdrew from the interview process or expressed concern about this. I did not notice a difference (which does not mean there wasn't a difference) in the contents of the interviews based on whether my heterosexual history was discussed before the taped part of the interview began.

In almost every case, I initially made arrangements via telephone for when and where the interview would take place. Most of the interviews took place in Greater Philadelphia, but one took place in central Pennsylvania, three in California, one in Greater Boston, and three in New York City. I indicated that the interview would likely last two to three hours (except for the one with Richard Schlegel, who was enthusiastic about doing a longer interview) and that I had been told that it was best to interview people in locations where they felt most comfortable, which was typically in their homes. Most of the interviews took place in the narrators' homes, but several took place elsewhere. There was only one instance in which I was concerned about my personal safety in a potential narrator's home. This was in Philadelphia and there was something about the initial telephone conversation that gave me pause. This was the only case in which I made a prior arrangement with my roommate to call her about thirty minutes after my scheduled arrival at this man's house. When I called, I happily reported that all was well, though ultimately this narrator did not agree to be interviewed on tape.

In our telephone conversation, I introduced the five or six topics that I would be interested in covering (including coming out, participation in gay/lesbian cultural life, and involvement in gay/lesbian activism) and emphasized that we could also cover other topics if they wished. I had been told that it was best to not build the interview around a detailed and long list of specific questions but rather to outline a set of broad topics and then engage in rather open-ended conversations about each of the topics. I also explained in our telephone conversation that I would be asking them to sign a standard permission form (which I produced based on a template provided by the Columbia Oral History Office) that would give us both rights to use the interview material until their death and then the rights would be mine alone. (Only one person added a condition to the permission form, stipulating that I would need to ask permission to use specific quotations from our interview in published work.) I noted as well that I intended to deposit the interview tapes after I finished my research to an appropriate library or archives (which I have not yet done). I explained that they could choose to have me use a pseudonym and that they could select the pseudonym if they wished. I also told them that my hope was to produce a complete transcript of the interview, which I then would share with them. If they wished to make any corrections or clarifications, they could do so and I promised to deposit both the original version and their corrections and clarifications in the library/archive that I selected. I repeated much of this when we met for the interview. Then we together filled out a two-page biographical information form (with sections devoted to their family, residential, and work histories) and the permission form before the taped part of the interview began.